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On the prowl for wonders in Jerusalem

On the prowl for wonders in Jerusalem

I’m still in Jerusalem, ladies and gentlemen, staggering from one fascinating sight to another, whil
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I’m still in Jerusalem, ladies and gentlemen, staggering from one fascinating sight to another, while my wife suffers by my side — may the Lord comfort her.

One of the sights we visited was the old neighborhood of Me’a She’arim, to investigate the people referred to in the press as the ultra-orthodox.

You see these people from time to time at home, where they come across as a picturesque subculture, like the Amish, in their black hats and coats for men and long skirts and concealed hair for women, but in Me’a She’arim they are not a subculture. They’re on their own turf, and I can tell you, or my wife can tell you, they are not the most congenial people in the world, picturesque or not. We got nothing but hard looks as we walked around and I got nothing but rebuffs when I tried to chat anyone up.

At one point my wife waited for me out on the sidewalk while I lingered in a hole-in-the-wall shop bargaining with an Iranian-Jewish silversmith, and by the time I came out with my purchase (a little pointer for reading the Torah), she was in distress, having been accosted by a pregnant young woman who angrily upbraided her, pointing at her clothing and waving her away from the neighborhood.

Apparently my poor wife was not dressed as modestly as signs on the streets demanded. Pants too snug? Wrists exposed? Hair blowing free? We didn’t know. But we took our researches elsewhere.

They’re a curious people, the men devoting themselves entirely to study of the Torah, while the women bear children and work outside the home as well, to support their worthless men.

One of these men, luxuriously bearded and curled, earlier accosted me in the crowded Mehane Yehuda market, where people mix freely, thrust a plastic-covered sheet of paper in front of me and demanded, “Please, money,” not politely but peremptorily.

The paper was written entirely in Hebrew except for a small heading that he stabbed his finger at, which said, “Torah Study Institute.” The bugger wanted me to give him money so and he and his fellows could more conveniently spend their days memorizing the primitive taboos and archaic prescriptions handed down from their supposed ancestors 2,500 years ago.

It was a shame I didn’t know a few choice words of Hebrew.

Speaking of archaic prescriptions, I found out about the little black boxes tied to the noggins of faithful men at the Western Wall, and the black leather straps on their arms. They’re called “tefillin,” and they are based on the rather cryptic words of Deuteronomy 11:18:

“You shall put these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall tie them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes,” the meaning of “totafot” being unclear.

With that for a guide, they get themselves up like S&M cultists.

It’s a good thing Deuteronomy didn’t tell them to swan-dive off the Western Wall, which is 60 feet high, or there would be an awful mess to clean up at the bottom.

But of course I understand that public display is an important part of piety in all religions. It’s not enough to be devout in the privacy of your heart; you have to demonstrate it to others.

Some of these characters were on the plane on the way over, and every once in a while they would repair to the small clearing near the restrooms and go through their elaborate lacing up and head-bobbing in such a self-satisfied way that it made me pray for turbulence every time. It never came, and thus did I further lose faith in divine justice.

No matter. Any god who would be impressed by such carryings on is not a god I would want to associate with anyway.

We went also to the Museum of Israel, which is the most beautiful museum I have ever seen and where we could have spent an entire week if we had it to spare.

I was interested mainly in seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls, but alas came away less than fulfilled, despite a spectacular setting. Only a few fragments are on display, plus a facsimile of the famous Isaiah scroll, and it was impressed on me that these things are very far from being original manuscripts of the Bible.

In fact they are centuries removed, so that like the books of the New Testament they are copies of copies of copies, necessarily cluttered with corrections, errors, emendations and incorporated marginalia, making it impossible for a judicious person to determine what the perfect word of God might ever have been. And many of them are non-biblical anyway, referring to long-lost rituals, cults and beliefs that only the most obsessive antiquarian could care about.

I also wanted to see the archeological part of the museum, which was not a disappointment. It was a vast, tasteful and informative exhibit of the earlier civilizations of the Holy Land, without any mention, by the way, of the Garden of Eden or Noah’s flood but rather taking for granted and even emphasizing the fact of evolution, which I thought was interesting.

I had expected a sustained visual argument for the state of Israel, and indeed “Israel” predominated in the exhibits even from remote times when the meaning of “Israel” was unclear, and “Palestine” got no show at all, though every other obscure political and cultural entity had its glass case.

Still I was amazed to read in one of the captions, “While the biblical story of the Exodus relates that the Israelites came from Egypt, many archeologists believe that they actually originated in the Land,” meaning the land of Canaan, which is as frank an acknowledgement as you could hope to find that the whole story of the Exodus, the 40 years in the desert, and the arrival in the promised land is fiction. Or what’s known in the trade as a foundation myth.

Also, skipping ahead a millennium or so, to the siege of Masada, where 960 Jewish defenders supposedly jumped to their deaths rather than surrender to the Romans, a museum wall plaque says, “So goes the account of Josephus Flavius. While archeologists have never found the hundreds of bodies from this mass suicide, the skeletons of three Zealots [defenders] were found in the northern palace.” Meaning another piece of fiction. There was no mass suicide. And never mind that the modern Israeli army used to induct new recruits in a ceremony at the top of Masada and give them Bibles along with their rifles.

We all understand that nationalism, like religion, relies heavily on make-believe.

And in the same category you can put the so-called First Temple, for which the official museum publication admits there is “no archeological evidence,” just Bible stories.

We have yet to see the cemetery on the Mount of Olives where rich Jews over the years have paid big money to be buried in the belief they will be the first to be resurrected, since that’s where the messiah is expected.

And many other sights also. We are dragging our bones around full of faith that more wonders await us.

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